With the showpiece of Asian football kicking off in Australia on Friday, our reporter Matt Monaghan guides us through the teams competing in Groups A and B.
Coach: Ange Postecoglou
Coach: Uli Stielike
Best finish: Champions (1956, 1960)
Star player: Son Heung-min
One to watch: Nam Tae-hee
Strengths: Firmly established as one of Asia’s powerhouses. Young squad possesses experience of many top leagues.
Weaknesses: The Taegeuk Warriors were dreadful at the recent World Cup. Confidence could be a problem.
Verdict: Will progress through group but struggle to impose themselves against the best.
Coach: Paul Le Guen
Best finish: Group stage (2004, 2007)
Star player: Ali Al Habsi
One to watch: Raed Saleh
Strengths: Have worked for three years under Le Guen. Are on upwards curve, finishing fourth in November’s Gulf Cup.
Weaknesses: Real lack of genuine quality in squad. Star striker Amad Al Hosni has only recently returned from injury.
Verdict: Will need an upset to get through group. South Korea clash is vital to their hopes.
Coach: Nabil Maaloul
Best finish: Champions (1980)
Star player: Aziz Mashaan
One to watch: Yousef Nasser
Strengths: Al Wahda’s Hussain Fadel is a rock at the back, while they possess decent attacking options
Weaknesses: The new coach has had very little time to work with his troops.
Verdict: This is a new dawn for Al Azraq under Maaloul. Look weakest team in group, will struggle to progess.
Coach: Jo Tong-sop
Best finish: Fourth place (1980)
Star player: Jong Tae-Se
One to watch: Pak Kwang-Ryong
Strengths: Squad is slowly broadening horizons, with players plying trade in Switzerland, South Korea and Japan.
Weaknesses: Have lost four of last five meetings with Asian heavyweights. Lack of inspirational figures on roster.
Verdict: Will need to be at best to make knockout stage. Not beyond their capabilities to do so.
Coach: Mirjalol Qosimov
Best finish: Fourth place (2011)
Star player: Server Djeparov
One to watch: Igor Sergeev
Strengths: Well-organised team on the rise. Came so close to World Cup qualification.
Weaknesses: This could be the last stand for a number of key players. Could be perfect time to play or a tournament too far.
Verdict: More than capable of progressing deep into competition. Potential quarter-final with South Korea is mouthwatering.
Coach: Alain Perrin
Best finish: Runners-up (1984, 2004)
Star player: Zheng Zhi
One to watch: Liao Lisheng
Strengths: Core of Guangzhou Evergrande players provide solid spine. Captain Zhi still an inspiration, while Marcello Lippifavourite Zhang Linpeng is a rock.
Weaknesses: Dearth of goals in squad. Have faltered regularly on international stage in recent years.
Verdict: Are a powerhouse waiting to happen but seems time is still to come. Will compete with Uzbeks and Saudis to progress from group.
Coach: Cosmin Olaroiu
Best finish: Champions (1984, 1988, 1996)
Star player: Nasser Al Shamrani
One to watch: Salem Al Dawsari
Strengths: Boast Asia’s finest player in Al Shamrani. Huge untapped talent in squad.
Weaknesses: Warm-up results under temporary boss Olaroiu have been disastrous. Volatile squad never too far from imploding.
Verdict: It is so difficult to predict what the Falcons will do. Have talent to win whole thing, but too often struggle to put it all together.
The first pages of a vital chapter in UAE football history are set to be written in the next three weeks.
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Succeed at the Asian Cup and the path to World Cup 2018 qualification appears wide open.
This journey has seemed preordained; a talented group of players maturing through the various age groups alongside coach Mahdi Ali up to the point where the nation can hope to compete with the globe’s finest for the first time since featuring at Italia ‘90.
But an underwhelming 2014 has seen the onus shifted back onto coach Ali to prove he is the man to continue this quest, the lack of a new contract providing extra personal importance for the impending tournament in Australia.
Such has been the rapid rate of development previously enjoyed under the 49-year-old former UAE midfielder’s tutelage – from his time with the Under-23s at the London 2012 Olympics to his successful integration with the seniors – this situation has previously existed unquestioned.
The highs of the Gulf Cup triumph in 2013 and the surge through Asian Cup qualification made it look unstoppable, the narrative of glory secure.
Cracks, however slight, started to emerge last year.
A step up in class of opponent since the end of the 2013-14 domestic season saw two friendly defeats to Armenia and
Uzbekistan, four dour draws against Norway, Lithuania, Paraguay and Australia, plus a solitary, barely-deserved triumph against Georgia.
Subsequently, a fitful Gulf Cup defence in November, which ended at the semi-final stage against hosts Saudi Arabia, has not helped. A new contract first stated as being close to finalised last summer, which would extend his stay beyond June 2015 until 2019, remains unsigned.
Further intrigue has been provided by the fact Ali spoke so confidently at last month’s squad announcement that a contract
extension would be confirmed prior to travelling Down Under.
This talk has proved hollow with UAE Football Association president Yousif Al Serkal last Sunday being forced to rally against the notion that doubts have crept into the governing body’s thoughts regarding their coach.
Reports, which have since been rejected, state the prospect of a new board being elected in 2016 is behind the reticence.
Why lumber them with a man they might not want? Judging by Al Serkal’s words, this scenario bares no relation to fact.
But what is clear is that the Whites are on a clearly-defined drive to raise standards ahead of the World Cup in 2018.
The rise to being the fifth-highest ranked Asian nation by FIFA is only the start, not the end, for a team and federation energised by a burning ambition to crown their massive improvement with a return to world football’s premier competition.
Friendly opponents are now largely drawn from Europe and South America, a glamour clash with Luis Suarez’s Uruguay to come in March.
When the first stage of the newly combined qualifiers for the World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup get under way in the summer, the UAE are expected to set the pace rather than chase.
These are not fanciful demands or pie-in-the-sky thoughts.
There is a genuine class and depth to Ali’s squad with talents such as Al Ain playmaker Omar Adulrahman and Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout among the finest on the continent.
Prior to Ali’s confirmation two years ago, Emiratis had last been regularly trusted with the permanent national manager’s post in the mid-1970s.
A poor Asian Cup campaign could see the return of the thought that big-name foreigners know best, an eminently possible
scenario given a tough Group C containing World Cup 2014 finalists Iraq, Gulf Cup holders Qatar and Bahrain.
Yet, to soar in spite of this draw and Ali looks immovable. Slump, and the insatiable desire for progress could leave him behind.
In some parts of Asia, this week dawns cold, dark and wintery but not in Australia where summer is in full swing. The New Year is just a week old but it’s time for the Asian Cup -16 countries, four billion people and one trophy. Sport 360 takes a look at what it all means, on and off the pitch for the world’s biggest continent.
MANY HOPEFULS IN AN OPEN TOURNAMENT
As Iraq demonstrated in 2007, the Asian Cup can be won by a team from outside the usual bunch of favourites and that is especially true this time. It’s as wide open as the South Korean and Japanese defences at the last World Cup. That 11 of the 16 hopefuls changed coaches in 2014 only adds to the unpredictability factor. The big boys are dealing with plenty of issues and that gives hope to others if they can find a lot of form and a little luck.
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Still, Japan are the favourites and rightly so – a triumph down under would take the team’s Asian Cup tally to five wins from the last seven tournaments. The defending champions have a team bursting with European experience at the top level: the Bundesliga, Serie A and the English Premier League. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki, Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida are all players in action at the top level every week. They come to the Asian Cup fit and in form, something that could not be said last summer.
Another change is a new coach. Javier Aguirre has yet to impress at the helm and there is something of a shadow hanging over the Mexican as he is being investigated for match-fixing in Spain.
Australia have home advantage but added pressure. Just one win in the last ten has raised concerns over coach Ange Postecoglou’s attempts to regenerate what was an aging team but the Socceroos still rely on veteran Tim Cahill for goals. South Korea is another with a new boss, Uli Stielike. The Teaguk Warriors were terrible at the World Cup but recent performances have been better. Still, despite the presence of the European stars such as Son Heung-min, perhaps the best Asian player in 2014, and Ki Seung-yeung, this tournament may come a little too soon.
Iran make up the Brazilian quartet and have stuck with the same coach in Carlos Quieroz who, in turn has stuck with the same, or similar, starting eleven. This could be key. A well-drilled, well-organised Iran side will be hard to beat and they possess attackers to trouble defences down under, although fans and media will be less willing to accept the same cautious counter-attacking tactics against Asian opposition as they were against Argentina.
Fellow Group C hopefuls UAE and Qatar may be dark horses but have lightened in hue considerably over the past couple of years. The men from Doha are now Asia’s form team and ended an excellent 2014 by winning the Gulf Cup of Nations, beating Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. If you can do that then the Asian Cup is not an impossible dream. Khalfan Ibrahim could be one of the stars of the tournament.
And then there’s Omar Abdulrahman. The Emirati playmaker could, perhaps should, be a global star by this time next month. The 2012 Olympics caught the attention of Europe’s elite. The Asian Cup should open wallets that much more. UAE’s good form has stuttered a little in recent months but it is time to show what they can do on the big stage.
The same can be said of Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and perhaps even North Korea. All could go far if things go their way. And then there’s Palestine. This team is not going to win but there is going to be huge interest in how they perform playing at this level for the first time.
RESTORING REPUTATIONS AND FORGING NEW ONES
It is fitting that the New Year offers a quick chance to put the miseries of the old to bed. Many in Asian football will want to put 2014 out of their minds as quickly as possible. The reputation of the continent suffered due to the events at the World Cup. There’s no reason to go over it all again but suffice to say that a combined haul of three points does not reflect well and talk about the future of football lying in Asia has stopped, for a while at least.
A great Asian Cup will not convince all that the east is rising but will restore a little lustre. There are some big names gearing up for the big kick off. Son Heung-min is one of the most exciting young talents in Europe and there are already reports that Bayer Leverkusen’s young forward is ready to move to one of the English Premier League giants for over Dhs 100 million (£20m). Keisuke Honda is one of the stars of Serie A with AC Milan and the likes of Tim Cahill, Shinji Kagawa, Ashkan Dejagah and Ki Seung-yeung are always worth watching.
— Leblanc Marilou (@marilou590) January 6, 2015
It’s not just about the stars already established but a chance for new ones to be forged. By the end of January, there will be some, at present, unfamiliar names in the global conversation mix -and that’s the way it should be. There are over 350 players who have the chance to do something fantastic.
AUSTRALIA’S MOMENT IN THE ASIAN SPOTLIGHT
It is nine years since Australia became a member of the Asian Football Confederation. During that time, the nation has made quite an impact in a football sense. The Socceroos have represented the continent at two World Cups and reached the final of the 2011 Asian Cup. Just two months ago, Western Sydney Wanderers took the Asian Champions League title after that hard-fought final victory over Al Hilal. In addition, there are Aussie players in action in many different continental leagues.
Off the pitch though, it is a little different. There are still some misgivings about the country’s presence in the AFC, especially in the western reaches of the continent. This partly stems from the Socceroos taking World Cup spots, the arrogance of the national team when it first entered the confederation – an attitude exemplified at the 2007 Asian Cup – and the perception that this is simply not an Asian country. That feeling exists in Australia too and perhaps this tournament can help Australia – media, clubs, fans, general public – embrace the continent to the north and vice-versa. That would be a lasting legacy worth celebrating.